Michael Totten

“The Head of the Snake”

SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ — Suleimaniya is the most liberal city in Iraqi Kurdistan, partly because of its long-standing and deep ties to nearby Iran, one of the most culturally liberal countries in the Middle East. The Iraqi Kurds I met who have been to Iran wanted me to know — and they want you to know, as well — that the distance between the Iranian people and their hideous regime is galactic. I heard the same refrain over and over again: “Persians are just like us.” In other words, they are liberal, secular, pro-Western, and fed up with tyrants. “Iranians love America,” the Kurds told me. “They have nothing to do with Ahmadinejad.”
All the way back in 1973 Moula Mustafa Barzani, the famous and beloved leader of the anti-Baathist Kurdish resistance, said he wanted Iraqi Kurdistan to become the 51st American state. Nowhere did Barzani’s fierce campaign resonate more deeply than it did in Suleimaniya. Suli isn’t only the cultural capital of the region — its New York, if you will. It also is the capital of Kurdish nationalism. Saddam Hussein called it “The Head of the Snake.”
He answered with genocide. No one in Iraq experienced the full wrath of Saddam’s Black Arabism more than the Kurds. If the Kurds refused to morph themselves into loyal little Baathists, he would erase them from the face of the earth.
The old headquarters of the mukhabarat, the secret police, still stands in one of Suli’s quiet neighborhoods, gutted and pock-marked with bullet holes.
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On March 7th, 1991, the Peshmerga battled it out here with the locally-based agents of Saddam’s regime. The Baathists fought hard. Surrender was not an option. They knew if they lost that every one of them would be killed. And they were right. After two days the compound was overrun. Those not killed in the fire fight were torn apart in the streets by local citizens.
Bullet holes show the fight was two-directional. You can still see, on the inside of the gate, where the regime’s bullets smacked into the concrete and the bricks while they fired at the Peshmerga beyond. Residential homes still stand in good condition across the street from the gate. These are still known as the Security Houses. The mukhabarat lived there and everyone knew it. No one wanted to walk or drive down through the neighborhood.
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The Kurds left the first shattered building in the compound intact as a memorial. The insides are blackened and strewn with rubble. Only pigeons live in there now.
The second building in the compound was a torture chamber and prison. It has since been turned into a genocide museum. Soviet-built tanks and anti-aircraft guns captured from Saddam’s defeated army are lined up outside.
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Next to the anti-aircraft guns is a white sculpture made by a Suleimaniya artist who happened to be on the grounds when I showed up. It memorializes six Kurdish children who were senselessly gunned down in the streets by the Baath.
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The entrance to the genocide museum is in the back of the building. To get there from the front you have to walk past one of the rape rooms. Women’s underwear and contraceptives were found in that room when the prison was liberated by the Peshmerga.
Rape Room.jpg
When you enter the museum you will walk through a long and winding hallway. The walls are covered with mirror shards. Each represents one of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds murdered in the genocidal Anfal campaign. A river of twinkling lights lines the ceiling. Each represents one of the five thousand villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein.
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Past the hallway of mirrors and light is a small room made up to look like a traditional Kurdish home. Houses like these barely exist in the countryside anymore. Saddam Hussein destroyed most of them. The rural part of the country is now eerily empty of people.
Traditional Kurdish Home.jpg
Then the museum begins in earnest. Pictures of Kurdish dead line the walls of the hallways and the old torture chambers and prison cells. I do not believe in ghosts or in lingering negative energy. But if I have ever been in a place that is haunted, this is it.
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Did you know? During the Kurdish uprising after the 1991 Gulf War, almost every last person fled to the mountains. The cities were almost completely emptied of people. Imagine living your life like that. Everyone over the age of 20 remembers it vividly.
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The Peshmerga fled to the mountains as well. They used those mountains as bases for their military operations against the Saddam regime.
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One picture stood out in particular for me. Below you can see a man who was shot dead while crossing one of the main streets. As it happens, the man is lying directly in front of my hotel.
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Some rooms in the museum don’t have pictures at all. Instead they show the instruments and the methods of torture. In one room, the so-called “Washington Room,” men and women had hot electric irons pressed into their skin.
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Dozens of people were packed into single caged cells. This one, pictured below, needed to have blood scrubbed off the walls before it could be opened to visitors.
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The hardest thing to see was the cell used to hold children before they were murdered. My translator Alan read some of the messages carved into the wall.
“I was ten years old. But they changed my age to 18 for execution.”
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“Dear Mom and Dad. I am going to be executed by the Baath. I will not see you again.”
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10,725 people were killed in this one building alone. All died during torture. Formal execution actually took place in Abu Ghraib.
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